The players smelled it. In the locker room at halftime, the stench of impending failure hung as heavily as the humid Caribbean air. Try as he might, U.S. men’s national team head coach Bruce Arena could not keep the desperation from creeping into his voice.
If we get one goal, the veteran American coach said to his defeated-looking team, we’re going to get a second. Just keep pushing forward.
“You could see him getting agitated,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber recalled. “He would be positive, and all of a sudden, he would level up, and sort of start getting louder. ‘Come on, guys, come on.’ It was definitely his body language, but it was also his tone of voice, going from trying to be calm to being more aggressive, and going back and forth. You could tell that the coaches were kind of on edge. Maybe even more so than the players.”
Needing only a draw to advance to the World Cup in Russia, the team had traveled to Trinidad for their final qualification match on October 10, 2017. Success was so assured that only 1,500 spectators even bothered to show up. But after conceding two freak goals in the first half, the U.S. found itself on the brink of disaster. What Arena himself once deemed “unthinkable” was becoming reality: The United States men’s national team was just 45 minutes away from missing the World Cup for the first time in more than 30 years.
In one corner of the cramped locker room sat a glowering Geoff Cameron. The veteran Premier League defender was irate from being left on the bench during the past two matches — a decision all the more galling now that his replacement, Omar Gonzalez, had opened the scoring with a horrifying own goal.
Cameron’s anger was just one example of tension inside the U.S. locker room. According to several close observers, the environment around the team during the past few years could be “toxic” at times, a lingering aftereffect of the inconsistent and culture-degrading management style of Arena’s predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann, who had been fired one year before. Arena had labored to rebuild team chemistry, but that had proved to be more challenging than the veteran coach had expected.
Michael Bradley had long known that the team’s fragile identity could derail qualification. Moving around the room, the captain and central midfielder tried to rally his teammates, beseeching them to raise their collective games. But he was also one of the most polarizing figures in the fractured dressing room: His massive seven-figure MLS salary and sometimes overbearing leadership style grated on teammates. Although Bradley knew that all of their legacies were on the line, he was an imperfect messenger.
Christian Pulisic, only 19 and already the team’s best player, sat in concentrated silence. He’d joined the team at the start of the qualification campaign and was on the verge of single-handedly propelling the group to Russia, notching seven goals and assisting on seven more. As the USMNT took the field for the second half, he tried to once again drag his beleaguered teammates to the World Cup. After just 90 seconds, he sliced through the Trinidad and Tobago defense and scored a goal to pull the U.S. within one.
But the second goal that Arena had promised never came. Clint Dempsey’s 77th-minute shot off the post was the closest the team came to equalizing. When the whistle blew, Pulisic sank to the turf, exhausted and angry, having experienced his first major failure as a professional player.
“The image that will stay with me was our best player, Christian Pulisic, the kid that had done so much, seeing him in the showers, fully clothed, with his hands in his face just crying,” remembered 31-year-old midfielder Dax McCarty.
Back in the United States, the reactions were similarly bleak as fans grappled with not only the qualification failure but also just how badly the U.S. had played in a match that sealed their World Cup fate. Landon Donovan watched events unfold from a friend’s couch in California, feeling as though he’d been punched in the gut. “It was a physical illness,” the U.S. legend said. “I think a lot of people felt the same way. I was sick to my stomach. It was hard to process just how much this would impact U.S. soccer.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, longtime American soccer executive Kevin Payne watched the defeat alone at a bar. “I felt the same way that I felt when I woke up the morning after Election Day,” he said. “Like my world has been unmoored, and how did it happen?”
With all of its advantages over its continental competitors, how did the U.S. fail to qualify for the World Cup? The question has divided the American soccer community ever since. Some have blamed the player development system. Others have questioned Arena’s tactics. And some have just said that the U.S. had a bad game on a hot night in Trinidad.
“You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being 2 inches wide or 2 inches in,” said then–U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati on the night of the collapse, referencing Dempsey’s near equalizer.
Behind the scenes, though, the disaster that unfolded in Trinidad was not the result of one shot hitting off the post or one poor tactical decision. The failure to qualify for the World Cup was the direct result of seven years of mismanagement at the highest levels of U.S. Soccer, which fostered disunion among the team’s players and ultimately doomed them to defeat.
“We put Band-Aids on things all the time and hope that they change and that things turn around,” USMNT defender Brad Evans said. “All of these successes were just Band-Aids for a failure that was going to potentially happen, and it did.”
This insider’s view of the epic American World Cup collapse — from the boardroom to the locker room — is based on interviews with more than 40 current and former players, coaches, and sources close to U.S. Soccer leadership, conducted in the aftermath of the U.S. defeat. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to describe scenes honestly, expressing fear of negative consequences for their careers if they spoke on the record.
Taken together, their accounts reveal that the seeds of the World Cup failure had been planted years earlier, in 2011, when U.S. Soccer president and Columbia University economist Sunil Gulati landed Klinsmann, a former World Cup–winning player with an elite international reputation, to become the new coach of the U.S. team. Yet Klinsmann’s methods — laudable in theory — decimated the team’s culture. Despite hearing about these problems from some men’s national team players and from U.S. Soccer staff members, Gulati and the federation’s leadership failed to react in time.
Even with the dysfunction at every level — from the executives down to the coaches and the players — the team was still one game away from qualification. Playing without energy or hunger when both were needed, they lost to a vastly inferior opponent. That result will follow them around for the rest of their playing days. But the failure was far from theirs alone.
“The thing that I thought about, selfishly, was that there goes my only chance to represent my country in the World Cup,” said McCarty, who watched the disaster unfold from the bench. “That’s when you start feeling sorry for yourself. Then you start thinking, ‘Holy shit, we just let down our entire country.’”
Act 1: Hope and a Honeymoon With Jürgen
The road to Trinidad began in the summer of 2010. In a hotel in Vancouver, Jürgen Klinsmann laid out his bold vision for the future of American soccer. Around him sat U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, and then–D.C. United president Kevin Payne, all listening with rapt attention.
At the time, Gulati was mulling a coaching change for the U.S. men’s national team. Bob Bradley had just completed a four-year tenure as manager that ended with the U.S. team’s ouster in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup. Soon afterward, Gulati had flown to Vancouver to meet with Klinsmann, a former German superstar with the same relentless sunniness that characterizes his adopted home of California.
“Bob was the head coach,” remembered Payne. “And Sunil asked me to come along and just give him my impressions of Klinsmann.”
For Gulati, there was a lot to like about Klinsmann. He had played in World Cups and in the Champions League, and he was viewed as an iconoclastic thinker, willing to challenge convention and make difficult, if unpopular, decisions. He’d earned that reputation managing his home country to a third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup, a performance that had led to Gulati’s first unsuccessful attempt to make Klinsmann his coach.
Among top-level European managers, Klinsmann also had the advantage of understanding the eccentricities of American soccer. Klinsmann had lived in Southern California since 1998 and had embraced his adopted home, learning about the college soccer system, MLS, and the millions of kids running around pristine suburban fields. His son Jonathan, a goalkeeper, competed in U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, the top American youth league, designed to provide young players with a professional-caliber training environment.
Most importantly for Gulati, though, Klinsmann represented something larger: a chance to turn the latent potential of American soccer into actual power.
Then in his fifth year as the president of U.S. Soccer, Gulati had done just about every job in the sport. He’d driven buses and bought balls at Kmart during national team camps. As deputy commissioner, he’d designed Major League Soccer’s signature single-entity structure, in which each team is owned by the league’s group of investors. Elected U.S. Soccer president in 2006 after running unopposed, Gulati, along with Flynn, had built the nonprofit organization into a juggernaut with a $100 million annual budget and 140 full-time employees.
On the field, Gulati wanted to push the American team from international soccer’s middle class into the sport’s elite, but he wasn’t convinced that his current coach was up to the job. The father of U.S. midfielder Michael and a well-respected figurehead within American soccer circles, Bradley had followed a well-trod path to the national team gig. Like his national team predecessor Arena, he’d risen through the ranks, from collegiate soccer to MLS and then to the U.S. job. And like Arena’s teams, his squads didn’t always play the flashiest soccer, but they did tend to transcend their lack of elite talent with a collective fighting spirit.
“You knew your role. You knew exactly what was going to be asked of you. You were going to have to go out there and be a motherfucker,” said Herculez Gomez, a forward for the national team under Bradley.
During his tenure, Bradley led the U.S. team to regional victory at the 2007 Gold Cup and to a second-place finish in a major international tournament, the 2009 Confederations Cup, with a Cinderella run that included a 2–0 victory over the world’s no. 1 team, Spain. But after a World Cup performance that featured plenty of grit and guile but not enough aggressive soccer for Gulati’s taste, the federation president was ready to consider alternatives, which is why he’d flown to Vancouver to hear out Klinsmann.
In 2010, the German’s vision for the national team was incredibly ambitious. He wanted the U.S. to play proactive, possession-based soccer and no longer rely on goalkeeping and counterattacks. He wanted both youth teams and the senior national team to build a uniquely American soccer identity, fusing together all the disparate cultures of the country’s melting pot. Above all else, he wanted to rid the U.S. team of its inferiority complex, its self-defeating mind-set that it couldn’t contend with the best teams from Europe and South America.
It was a heady vision, and one that appealed to Gulati’s desire to revolutionize American soccer. “I don’t think it was any secret that [Gulati] did want Jürgen to take the job,” said Mike Edwards, the vice president of U.S. Soccer from 2006 to 2016. “Each president wants to put their own stamp on things.”
But Klinsmann’s asking price as well as demands for control were too much for Gulati. Klinsmann wanted the authority to hire not just the senior team’s technical staff and coaches but also the permanent staff of the federation, from the press shop to the trainers and the equipment managers — employees that had traditionally remained in their positions regardless of who ran the men’s team. Moreover, Klinsmann wanted to circumvent the federation’s power structure. “Really, [Klinsmann] didn’t want to report to anybody. He wanted to report to Sunil,” remembered Payne. It was an organizational structure that would have bypassed Flynn, the chief executive of U.S. Soccer. The deal fell apart.
Reluctantly, Gulati extended Bradley’s contract in August 2010, and the hiring process revealed a bigger truth about the way decisions have historically been made inside U.S. Soccer. Gulati and Flynn — despite having never played or coached the sport at a high level — had the unilateral authority to hire the national team coach. Even the organization’s vice president at the time, Edwards, was not involved in the decision-making.
Over the next year, Gulati’s eye continued to wander toward Klinsmann. And luckily for Gulati, Klinsmann’s job prospects had cooled since his 2006 World Cup triumph. His last head-coaching gig, as the manager of Bayern Munich, had ended in the spring of 2009 after only nine months. At the time of his dismissal, Barcelona had just demolished Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinals, and his team — perennial title contenders — sat in third place in the Bundesliga and were in danger of missing out on European competition. The Bayern leadership pulled the plug with just five matches remaining in the season.
After failing to ink a deal with U.S. Soccer in 2010, Klinsmann was hired as a consultant to fix MLS club Toronto FC. Acting as a headhunter, Klinsmann recommended that TFC hire Dutch manager Aron Winter and former New England Revolution assistant Paul Mariner. But both of his picks flopped, and the team remained mired at the bottom of the league.
By June 2011, Klinsmann was itching to get back into the coaching game but lacked the bargaining power he had once commanded. It was then that he landed an invitation to a state dinner in Washington in honor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He reached out to D.C. United’s Payne, requesting a meeting while he was in the nation’s capital.
Before agreeing to the meeting, Payne called Gulati, wanting to know what to say if Klinsmann brought up the U.S. job. Bradley had a contract that ran through 2014, and his team was slated to play their first match in the Gold Cup the same night as the state dinner. What do you want me to do? Payne asked Gulati. I can just tell him there’s nothing to talk about.
“And Sunil said, ‘Tell him if he does want to have a conversation, it’s got to start and end at this number,’” Payne said. “‘Not at his number.’”
Payne met Klinsmann for breakfast at the swanky W Hotel, just steps from the White House. Payne relayed Gulati’s message, and Klinsmann agreed to the lower salary figure.
(Klinsmann did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)
From there, Klinsmann’s agent reached out to U.S. Soccer to express interest in the job, and after Bradley’s team lost the 2011 Gold Cup final to Mexico, Gulati was ready to listen. Over coffee in Frankfurt during the Women’s World Cup, Klinsmann and Gulati met to discuss the terms of a deal. More important than haggling over salary, Klinsmann agreed to operate within the federation’s existing organizational structure, the principal reason negotiations had failed in 2006 and 2010.
Just a year after offering his current coach a new four-year contract, firing Bradley and hiring Klinsmann would be a massive decision, the biggest of Gulati’s tenure. It would represent a new start for the men’s team: a shared ambition to break its current identity and to build something newer, stronger, and better in its place. For Gulati, it also meant that its success — and its potential failure — would be his responsibility.
On July 28, 2011, one month after Bob Bradley’s team lost to Mexico, Gulati fired the veteran American coach. The next day, Klinsmann was announced as the new manager.
At the time, the excitement inside American soccer was palpable. To many, the future in which the U.S. could one day win a World Cup suddenly seemed within reach. “Jürgen really has a magnetism to him that makes people want to get in there and listen to what he has to say,” said Edwards. “I think he was the right guy at the right time to bring us a shot of enthusiasm.”
And for a little while, at least, things appeared to be going well. In March 2012, the U.S. beat Italy on Italian soil, which the team had never done. That summer, the Yanks dropped Mexico in Mexico for the first time in 25 tries, breaking a decades-long curse. More than anything, most players involved with the national team program seemed to benefit from the fresh vibe. Where Bradley was strict and taciturn, Klinsmann was warm and bubbly, tanned and full of energy. He had a way of putting players at ease.
“It was tough to feel uncomfortable around him,” said Feilhaber.
He cajoled America’s top players to get out of their “comfort zones” and to play in Europe’s top leagues. It was the ethos that had defined his own career as a player — a relentless hunger to achieve, a visceral hatred of inertia — and Klinsmann attempted to implant that mind-set inside his new players. “He said it privately in meetings to a lot of players, he said it in front of the group during team meetings, and he said it publicly,” remembered Donovan. “He never shied away from that message.”
Klinsmann was also able to persuade a number of German-based players with American heritage to don the red, white, and blue, and he brought his energy and ideas to how things were run inside U.S. Soccer. He wasn’t afraid to be critical of how the organization made decisions, pushing the leadership on player development initiatives and coaching education just like he pushed the players on the senior team to take their game to the next level.
“For a lot of us … we were all really hungry at the time and really wanted to prove that we belonged,” Evans said. “We worked our tits off to be there, and we got results.”
At the time, no one could have could imagined that five years later the Klinsmann experiment would end in failure, and its two chief architects would be out of work.
Act 2: How to Lose a Locker Room
The road into Stanford University, lined with Canary Island palm trees, welcomed the U.S. men’s national team to their training camp before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Thirty players arrived on the campus in Palo Alto on May 14 to fight for a spot on Klinsmann’s final roster, but only 23 would board the team’s plane to Brazil.
Training was intense. The group was composed mostly of familiar faces — Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley — but there were a few new ones, too. Bayern Munich’s 18-year-old German American Julian Green was a surprise inclusion. Despite his impressive club pedigree, he had made his senior international debut only one month prior and had featured just once as a substitute for his club. To the team’s close-knit veterans, he was an obvious threat to a seat on the flight to the World Cup.
On May 22, the players were expecting just another typical practice day. Instead, it quickly became an inflection point in Klinsmann’s tenure and a symbol of the larger battle that Klinsmann, who’d recently signed a contract extension, was waging for control of U.S. Soccer.
The final roster wasn’t supposed to be announced until a week later, but that day, a few players were pulled aside as they walked off the practice field, about to be culled from the herd in shock. The setting was too informal, and the process too rushed, for Klinsmann to offer anything but a platitude on the side of the pitch for all to see: You know, I’ve just got to go with my gut here. We’re not going to bring you to the World Cup.
“Nobody was prepared for what was coming,” said Evans, who was one of the cuts. “If you can prepare yourself for a disaster situation, it’s easier to cope with than things just happening, like a car crash. I think the way it was gone about was wrong.”
Defender Clarence Goodson, another of the cuts, asked Klinsmann for an explanation. “I told him very calmly that I didn’t agree and asked for his reasoning. I felt I should be starting, not trying to make the team,” Goodson said in an email. Klinsmann told him that they could speak after the World Cup. “I said to him, ‘Let’s be honest. My U.S. career is over.’ Still, he refused to give me an explanation, which of course is his right as the coach, but I felt in the moment that I deserved better.” Klinsmann and Goodson have not spoken since.
The early roster cuts weren’t just a surprise for the players. No one in U.S. Soccer had been briefed, including Gulati and Flynn. As the dejected players walked off the pitch, it slowly dawned on federation staff that Klinsmann wasn’t just dropping a few players from the group of 30; he was announcing the final 23-man roster for Brazil.
The manner in which players were informed was not the only point of contention. Veterans like Evans and Goodson were regarded as key locker-room leaders. In their place was a cohort of German Americans including John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, and Green — on paper, talented players, but subject to occasional grumbling about their commitment to the squad. The complaints about German American players could have xenophobic undertones, but over time — rightly or wrongly — Klinsmann’s perceived preferential treatment for this group of players would damage team morale.
The last player to learn that he would not be traveling to Brazil was also the most controversial: Landon Donovan. The forward had stayed after practice to hit a few free kicks, and when Klinsmann called for Donovan, shivers of panic went through U.S. Soccer staff. Most of the cuts so far had been players on the fringe of the roster, but Donovan was the most famous American soccer player alive and the team’s all-time leading goal-scorer. It was his last-second goal in 2010 that had propelled the USMNT into the knockout round. Then on the wrong side of 30, he was no longer quite the player he once was, but few inside the locker room believed the team was better off without him.
Donovan and Klinsmann had butted heads for years, dating back to when the coach put his reputation on the line to bring the forward to Bayern Munich. On loan in 2009, Donovan made only six substitute appearances and didn’t score a goal. The episode played a major role in fracturing the club’s faith in Klinsmann’s judgment before his firing.
Their personalities didn’t mesh, either. As new-agey as Klinsmann could sound, he was a ruthless competitor. For all of his talents, Donovan just wasn’t built like that. He thrived in MLS, with the national team, and in loan stints with Everton, playing situations in which the introspective forward felt within his comfort zone. He once took a self-imposed sabbatical from the sport to recharge his burnt-out emotional batteries in Cambodia.
Later on the same day of the cuts, Klinsmann’s son Jonathan taunted Donovan on social media, and though his tweet was quickly deleted, it was clear to many involved that the decision was personal.
The team was universally shocked. If it could happen to Landon, it could happen to any one of us. Around American soccer, the outrage was swift and widespread.
“The single dumbest thing that Jürgen Klinsmann has ever done. Period,” said Richard Groff, a former member of U.S. Soccer’s board of directors. “I don’t know anybody that agreed with that decision. No one. And I was furious.”
Cutting Donovan brought into public view the behind-closed-doors battle for control of U.S. Soccer that was waged during the Klinsmann years. Gulati and Flynn had hired Klinsmann to revolutionize American soccer, but the initial stumbling block over control during his hiring process foreshadowed the fault lines of an eventual conflict. Dropping the team’s highest-profile player before the World Cup wasn’t a random act; it was part of Klinsmann’s plan to assert control over the team’s culture. “Everybody thinks this whole, like, California, blond surfer-dude attitude is Jürgen. [But] he is very German. I mean really German. Really rigid on a lot of things,” said Payne.
For those inside U.S. Soccer and for many of the team’s veteran players, the problem was not that Klinsmann wanted to enact change, but that his plans lacked continuity. Many of Klinsmann’s innovations — from motivational speakers to yoga classes, fitness regimens, strict nutrition controls, and constantly evolving tactical schemes — were introduced one day and forgotten the next. It was hard for players to tell whether a Klinsmann decision was calculated “creative disruption” or just the whim of a coach who woke up with a new idea.
Klinsmann’s divide-and-conquer tactics had started long before the Donovan decision. In March 2013, he axed veteran defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra, a popular figure who had kept the locker room united during the changeover from Bradley to Klinsmann. It was similar to one of the decisions he made as Germany’s head coach, when he sacked legendary goalkeeper Oliver Kahn and stripped him of the captaincy.
Klinsmann’s messaging also created tension. Early and often, the manager implored American players to mirror his mind-set: ruthlessly competitive, never satisfied, and always looking to play in bigger and better leagues. His goal was to challenge the symbiotic relationship that had developed between MLS and U.S. Soccer, and the league bristled at any suggestion that it was not an appropriate destination for national team players. Rightly or wrongly, USMNT players in MLS felt devalued.
These slights could have been tolerated if the team had played like the one Klinsmann described in public — an attack-minded, progressive force — but by the time he cut Bocanegra in 2013, many of the players had begun to question Klinsmann’s tactical acumen. The group had struggled through the preliminary round of qualifying, not clinching progression until a win against Guatemala in the final game. Then, they lost the opening game of the final qualification round, the Hexagonal or “Hex,” to Honduras in San Pedro Sula. In a blockbuster piece in the Sporting News by Brian Straus published after the Honduras match, multiple U.S. national team players blasted Klinsmann and his assistant Martin Vasquez anonymously, arguing that both lacked the tactical sophistication to lead the team.
Their complaints echoed those of Philipp Lahm, a German national team star and fullback for Bayern Munich during Klinsmann’s brief tenure there. In his 2011 autobiography, published after U.S. Soccer had hired Klinsmann, Lahm blasted his coaching methods. “We practiced little more than fitness [at Bayern]. Tactical things were neglected. The players had to get together before [games] to discuss how we wanted to play,” Lahm wrote. “After six or eight weeks, all the players knew it wouldn’t work with Klinsmann. The rest of the season was damage limitation.”
NBC Sports’ Kyle Martino had also been hearing complaints from players about Klinsmann and Vasquez’s tactical shortcomings. The week after Straus’s piece came out, Martino traveled to California to watch the team practice. “I saw it firsthand. The training sessions were incongruous. They were muddled. They didn’t make sense, and they didn’t prepare the team for the weekend,” he recalled. “The players didn’t know what positions they were playing until the day of the game. I mean, it was a mess.”
Martino took these reflections to the airwaves, arguing that Vasquez lacked the qualifications to prepare the team, and the next day he got a call from Klinsmann. “Basically, he tried to bully me to get me on board. He started by trying to intimidate me a bit,” said Martino. “And then he did this, ‘Kyle, you’re an important figure in soccer, people listen to you. You can’t say things like that because it’s going to be damaging to the team. Next time, please call me beforehand.’”
It didn’t end there. Klinsmann then rescinded Martino’s invitation to a media roundtable, a warning sign to any future critics. Only after NBC responded to U.S. Soccer and said that it supported Martino and would not be sending anyone to cover future U.S. Soccer events was his access returned.
Despite the dispute, Klinsmann heeded Martino’s advice in the run-up to the World Cup. He fired Vasquez, replacing him with national team veteran Tab Ramos and bringing in former German national team coach Berti Vogts as an adviser.
“That is a massive window into the psychology of Jürgen Klinsmann and the authority he had been given by [U.S. Soccer],” said Martino. “He was out to control everything. That ordeal was the first time I was truly concerned the emperor had no clothes.”
On its face, the 2014 World Cup was a net win for Klinsmann, the group’s collective frustrations taking a backseat as the team competed in the world’s biggest sporting event. Despite having been drawn into what some considered the Group of Death, with Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, and longtime bogeyman Ghana, the U.S. advanced out of the group stage, and was a close-range shank from Chris Wondolowski — a forward who made the roster over Donovan — from reaching the quarterfinals.
Yet for all the talk about revolutionizing the team’s style of play, the U.S.’s round of 16 match against Belgium was a step backward. The Belgians dominated from start to finish, firing off a mind-boggling 38 shots, 26 of them on target. If not for Tim Howard recording a tournament-record 16 saves, it would have been a rout rather than a near miss.
After the World Cup, Klinsmann continued his plans to disrupt American soccer. He called up Miguel Ibarra from a second-division side, the NASL’s Minnesota United, and Jordan Morris from Stanford — moves that were widely interpreted as shots at MLS. He even went after the big-money MLS homecomings of national team stars like Dempsey, Bradley, and Jozy Altidore, sparking a war of words with powerful MLS commissioner Don Garber in the fall of 2014.
“I think at the beginning, Jürgen did a good job. Jürgen talked a lot about systemic change … [but] he didn’t understand that it works a lot better if you can try to achieve some consensus as opposed to just dictating how to do things,” said Payne.
Inside the team, the four-plus years of inconsistent tactics and messages began to take a toll. Players described routinely having to figure out positions in the tunnel on the way onto the pitch. “The thing that got talked about the least in the national team for five years was soccer,” said a source close to the team. When asked about the struggles, players articulated that it wasn’t any one issue but instead a compounding frustration, slowly rising in temperature, like a pot of water about to boil. The question of whether or not Klinsmann should be the coach became a serious discussion point for those on the team.
A few weeks before a friendly with Chile in January 2015, veterans Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey had a conversation about the state of the team. Dempsey, a quiet Texan who was the team’s captain, led with his play on the field, not with his words. When Gulati reached out in 2010, asking him to discuss the state of the team under Bob Bradley, he never picked up the phone or returned the calls.
Now, posed with a question about what should happen with Klinsmann, Dempsey wanted no part of it. “I wouldn’t have done this to your father, and I’m not doing this now,” he told Bradley, according to multiple sources within the team. “I just want to score goals and go fishing.”
The game in Chile, however, did nothing to quiet the unrest. Despite having hardly so much as practiced the formation, the U.S. came out in a three-defender setup with Jermaine Jones, a midfielder, operating as a center back and attacking midfielder Mix Diskerud deployed in a defensive role. The lack of preparation was obvious in the 3–2 defeat. After training the following day, Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore, and Jones took a few extra laps around the practice field and vented about the nonsensical tactics, the team’s plummeting morale, and Klinsmann’s role in all of it.
It was only the start of the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign, but something was amiss inside the group. Over the next year, the team’s veterans would continue to talk; the water was boiling over.
Michael Bradley provided the following statement about this period: “Throughout the last cycle, there were tough moments that led to hard conversations. As captain, different things came to me. I never shared who was involved or what was said, and I’m not going to start now. After the game in Trinidad, I answered every question. I took responsibility and said we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
When the results were good, Gulati and the federation had been willing to tolerate the tension Klinsmann created because it had some positive benefits. But as the team trended in the wrong direction, Gulati would be forced to make a choice about his embattled coach.
Act 3: Gulati Can’t Quit Klinsmann
The 2015 Gold Cup had been a struggle from the start. The American team looked disjointed during the group stage, eking out results against regional minnows Honduras and Haiti. A blowout in the quarterfinal over Cuba felt cathartic, but then the U.S. lost its semifinal clash with Jamaica. The defeat was historic: The team had never lost to Jamaica on home soil.
In a regional tournament that the United States usually wins or loses in the final to archrival Mexico, Klinsmann’s team placed fourth after losing a consolation match to Panama. In the aftermath, Klinsmann blamed the poor results on referees, and privately told U.S. Soccer officials that he believed some of the matches were rigged.
For those inside the federation, alarm bells were ringing. They’d heard the grumblings about player discontent going back years. Gulati himself had heard much of it firsthand. He had a long history of backchanneling with players to keep a pulse on what was going on inside the locker room, a tactic that some in American soccer circles believed undermined the authority of his coaches. In 2014, women’s national team coach Tom Sermanni had been fired after what some viewed as a players revolt.
As 2016 began, the Klinsmann question vexed Gulati. He polled U.S. Soccer’s leadership and players, outside confidantes, and even some journalists about what to do regarding his embattled coach. Gulati had gambled heavily on Klinsmann, and even as reports filtered back to him that Klinsmann wasn’t working out, Gulati was hesitant to make a change.
“Sunil keeps very close counsel, and I think that did not serve him well over time,” said Edwards, the former U.S. Soccer vice president. “People have their style, and until now the [U.S. Soccer] membership tended to defer to the president, particularly on the men’s coach.”
Just a few years before in 2013, Gulati had doubled down on his bet. At the time, the German’s stock as U.S. coach had never been higher. After the tumult around the Straus story, Klinsmann took a more active role in planning training sessions and rebuilding team morale. That, alongside the potential of missing the World Cup, motivated the group. That summer, a U.S. B team won the Gold Cup. Then, the U.S. rallied from their early stumbles in World Cup qualification, finishing in first place in the “Hex,” the final six-team qualifying stage. It was the best run of results during his five-and-a-half-year tenure.
In November 2013, Klinsmann made his power play, asking Gulati for a contract extension that would grant him more money and more power. In addition to coaching the senior team through the 2018 World Cup, Klinsmann wanted the job of technical director. The position would give him more control over the direction of all U.S. youth teams and a wide perch to affect player development. Most importantly, Klinsmann wanted the new deal done before the 2014 World Cup.
For advice, Gulati reached out to Payne. Gulati feared that Klinsmann could quit if not given a new deal. At the time, rumors were flooding the tabloid press in England that Klinsmann might land the Tottenham job or take over the Swiss national team after the World Cup.
Payne said he warned Gulati about expanding Klinsmann’s role to technical director, saying, “Just understand that he’s not going to do the work.” But he asked Gulati a simple question: Are you happy with Klinsmann’s performance? “And he said, ‘Yes, I am. The things that we’ve hired him for, he’s done. He’s raised the profile of the program. He’s had a pretty open door, and he’s been open to a lot of different players. He’s gotten us results in places that we’ve never got results before.’” Moreover for Gulati, Klinsmann was now the face of U.S. Soccer. To give up on him would be to admit the failure of Gulati’s grand vision.
On December 12, Gulati announced Klinsmann’s contract extension. The deal gave Gulati the right to terminate the agreement should the U.S. stumble in the World Cup, but it showed that the federation and U.S. Soccer would continue to be synonymous with Jürgen Klinsmann.
Payne now says that he gave Gulati the wrong advice. “If we had known that armed with that, he was going to become what he became — that he was going to say ‘Fuck you’ to everybody and leave Landon Donovan off the World Cup team and create the seeds of dissension that plagued him for the remainder of his tenure, then I would have said, ‘Don’t give him the extension yet. And if he wants to go [after the World Cup], then let him walk away.’”
To follow up the failure at the 2015 Gold Cup, the team lost at home to Mexico in the 2015 CONCACAF Cup, costing the United States a spot in the Confederations Cup. Meanwhile, Klinsmann continued his public clash with MLS commissioner Don Garber and repeatedly failed to accept responsibility for his team’s lackluster results.
Inside U.S. Soccer, the tensions that Payne had warned Gulati about were growing. Klinsmann clashed with chief operations officer Jay Berhalter, a rising power inside U.S. Soccer, who had assumed the day-to-day duties that many within U.S. Soccer thought Klinsmann was neglecting as technical director. According to sources close to the team, CEO Dan Flynn was growing weary of the drama and ready to fire Klinsmann, but Gulati still wavered, hoping the project could be salvaged.
“I think the mind-set of all of us at U.S. Soccer was that we can’t not qualify for the World Cup,” said Edwards. “It clouds your thinking of the immediacy of the need to resolve a problem.”
By March 2016, a moment of reckoning had arrived. The senior team lost to Guatemala for the first time in 32 years. The loss put the U.S. in danger of missing out on the “Hex.” Just a few days later, the U.S. under-23 Olympic team, coached by Klinsmann’s hand-picked assistant Andi Herzog, failed to qualify for the Olympics for the second time under Klinsmann’s watch.
A month later, Gulati finally made his move — well, almost. As described in detail in Bruce Arena’s forthcoming book, What’s Wrong With US?, the veteran American coach was first approached by Gulati and Flynn soon after the team’s disastrous March. (An advance copy of the book was sent to The Ringer by Arena’s agent, Richard Motzkin.) On April 25, the group met secretly in Chicago, and Gulati and Flynn agreed in principle to fire Klinsmann and bring in Arena.
Arena was the closest thing American soccer had to a Grand Pooh-bah. He had won five MLS Cups, the most in league history. He’d already headed up the national team once, from 1998 to 2006, leading a memorable run to the quarterfinals in 2002, the team’s best showing at a World Cup in the modern era. At the time of his meeting with Gulati and Flynn, his L.A. Galaxy team had won three of the previous five MLS championships and looked like legitimate contenders to make it four out of six.
Yet the 64-year-old couldn’t resist giving it one more shot with the national team. He remained upset about his team’s three-and-out performance at the 2006 World Cup and wanted a shot at redemption. Furthermore, answering his country’s distress call in a time of need appealed to his ego. Protecting previous accomplishments wasn’t enough to keep Arena from one final shot at World Cup glory.
In Chicago, Arena did not want to sign a contract until his agent and U.S. Soccer power broker Motzkin was looped in, so the trio agreed to regroup the next afternoon. Inside U.S. Soccer, preparations were being made. Federation staff had drafted a press release and were ready to send it out to their media contacts to announce the massive decision once they got the OK from Flynn.
Awaiting a phone call the next day, Arena instead received a vague note from Flynn saying that his appointment would have to wait. Flynn, unbeknownst to anybody outside the U.S. Soccer hierarchy, was awaiting a heart transplant that could save his life. Flynn received word of a potential donor the morning after the initial meeting with Arena, and immediately flew to Kansas City for emergency surgery. His recovery timetable was eight weeks, minimum, before he could return to work.
The decision to hire or fire Klinsmann now rested solely with Gulati. Klinsmann’s failures in March and subsequent refusal to accept responsibility for the team’s struggles had prepared him to pull the trigger. But with Flynn incapacitated, he began to waver.
In his book, Arena describes a phone call with Gulati. Everyone now knew about Flynn’s previously secret heart problems. Sensing Gulati’s hesitations, Arena told him that he would understand if he held off on making such a decisive move until Flynn returned to work. “Listen, Sunil, do you feel uncomfortable about this?” Arena said. “Forget about it. Don’t worry about it.”
By the time Gulati was finally ready to fire Klinsmann, the situation would be worse. Instead of taking over for the full Hexagonal cycle, Arena would be given only eight games with a team that lost its first two matches. There was still some margin for error; it just wasn’t big enough.
Act 4: Arena and the Old Guard Come Close
In November 2016, at the end of a practice session ahead of what would be Klinsmann’s final match in charge of the U.S. national team, defender Timmy Chandler gave a younger teammate some telling advice. Forward Bobby Wood was nursing minor knocks suffered from the previous match — a disappointing 2–1 loss to Mexico on home soil — and Chandler told him not to risk aggravating his injuries. Wood was still establishing himself as a regular starter in Germany’s Bundesliga. Why, Chandler posited, risk that by overexerting yourself for your country when your club team was paying most of your bills?
Wood ignored Chandler’s advice and started the match, but the exchange symbolizes the state of the team that Arena would inherit. Historically, the USMNT had been known for its grit and fight — a team that exceeded the sum of its parts. But Klinsmann’s tenure had cracked that collective spirit, and it was exposed in ruthless fashion in the match against Costa Rica. It wasn’t just that the team lost 4–0; it was how the side capitulated under pressure. The humiliating defeat exposed the team’s broken culture, and most importantly revealed that most of the group had given up on Klinsmann.
One week after the loss to Costa Rica, Gulati fired Klinsmann, in late November, and brought in Arena seven months after he had initially planned to hire him. To announce the decision, the U.S. Soccer press shop had it easy. It merely changed the date on the press release it had prepared in April.
Gulati’s rationale for hiring the former national team coach was simple. Arena was the coaching antithesis of Klinsmann, known for his strong ability to speak bluntly with players. Everyone on an Arena team would know their role. There would be no surprises and no miscommunication. Plus, despite the poor start, the United States was still one of the top three teams in the region and had more than enough individual talent to qualify.
However, the decision to go back to a known quantity in Arena revealed Gulati’s insular management style. Having waited so long to replace Klinsmann, Gulati was wary of handing the team over to another high-profile foreign coach, and there wasn’t enough time to entrust an up-and-coming American manager with such a major rescue job. He needed a quick fix to salvage World Cup qualification now that his team was down 2–0, and his only option, according to a source familiar with Gulati’s thinking at the time, was to recall a former U.S. national team manager. It was a shortlist of two: Arena and Bob Bradley. Relations with Bradley, however, were still strained following his unceremonious 2011 dismissal, leaving Gulati — in his mind — with no choice but to hand the job to Arena.
The new coach’s plan to get back on track was straightforward. Arena wanted to resurrect the camaraderie that had characterized the group he’d managed in the first decade of the 2000s. Whereas under Klinsmann there were mixed messages, Arena was clear-cut about his demands and expectations. Even at the expense of raw talent, Arena dropped many of the players whose commitment to the team had previously been questioned, including Chandler.
For much of the group, the training camp in January 2017 was a breath of fresh air. With Klinsmann gone, it was as if a weight had been lifted; spirits were light. And for the most part, Arena’s strategy worked. The U.S. defeated Honduras and Trinidad at home, and earned tough road draws at Panama and at Mexico’s Azteca. For a while, the Americans looked on a comfortable track toward qualification.
Helping power the resurgence was Christian Pulisic. Only 18 years old when he first appeared under Arena, the Hershey, Pennsylvania, native emerged as one of the most promising prospects in U.S. history. As a fast, aggressive dribbler, he’d broken into the starting lineup at Borussia Dortmund, one of the biggest clubs in the world. Still in his late teens, Pulisic had already accomplished more than most American outfielders ever had, and his status on a German Bundesliga powerhouse immediately earned him the respect of his much older peers.
As a standout youngster, however, Pulisic was very much the exception rather than the rule. According to those familiar with Arena’s thinking at the time, he was reluctant to introduce new faces. With only eight games remaining in qualification, he instead leaned heavily on veterans he believed he could trust.
“We were pushing the guys in front of us, the older guys,” Evans said of the early days under Klinsmann. “We were going to fight for our positions. I don’t know that there is that right now. I don’t know that there are those guys pushing the ones in front of them, trying to push them off.”
Arena’s delicate balancing act between fixing the team culture and getting the most out of an already shallow talent pool was personified by Geoff Cameron.
A standout defender in the Premier League, Cameron had been one of the few top American players to remain in Europe during Klinsmann’s tenure. Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore, Jones, and later Howard and Brad Guzan had all repatriated back to MLS on big-money contracts, but Cameron continued to grind out results with Stoke City. Although Cameron recognized Klinsmann’s limitations as a manager, he’d appreciated how the German had pushed American players to challenge themselves at the international standard, the level he played at week in, week out in the Premier League.
From the start, his relationship with Arena was rocky. Cameron and some other players didn’t respect the level of experience that Arena’s assistants brought to the team. Although coaches Richie Williams, Matt Reis, and Kenny Arena (Bruce’s son) had all played in MLS, none had played in Europe’s top leagues or in a World Cup. As tensions at practice sessions grew, Arena’s staff came to believe that these players were more interested in earning a ticket to the World Cup than in the overall health of the squad, reminding them of the troubles during the Klinsmann years.
As it was before, when the results were good, team chemistry wasn’t as much of a problem. According to one source, Cameron’s attitude was exceptionally positive during the team’s hard-fought draw against Mexico. But when the squad struggled, like in its 2–0 loss at home to Costa Rica in September that again put qualification in doubt, the locker-room problems resurfaced.
Tensions with Cameron climaxed during the team’s next qualification match, a must-win against Panama in October. Before the match, rumors around the team swirled that Cameron would get sent home. According to a source close to the team, Cameron himself asked about leaving after hearing from Arena that he would not be starting the match.
But Cameron elected to remain with the squad, and in the middle of the resounding 4–0 victory — which put the U.S. within one point of qualification for Russia — Cameron allegedly grumbled to his benchmates about his lack of playing time even as his teammates dominated on the pitch. Word of his complaints reached Arena’s staff, which sealed Cameron’s fate: He would not play in the final match against Trinidad.
Reached for comment, Cameron’s agent strongly denied that the player complained about playing time on the bench, and said that Cameron has been universally committed to the national team.
With one match to go and needing only a draw to advance, the U.S. coaching staff discussed shuffling the lineup ahead of the fateful game in Trinidad in October 2017. Some suggestions included adding an additional central midfielder to support Bradley in the center of the pitch, or giving some of the starters from Panama a rest in order to let players with fresh legs deal with the sultry Caribbean climate.
Ultimately, Arena elected to use the same lineup he had against Panama four days prior. He reasoned that an overly defensive lineup would signal to his team that he was playing only for a draw. Furthermore, all the starters from the Panama game wanted to play again. Instead of shuffling the lineup, and at the risk of fatigue after such a quick turnaround, he would bring out the same team that had won so convincingly in Orlando.
From the opening whistle, it was clear that Arena had miscalculated. The U.S. played slowly and without energy. It confounded the coaching staff and players on the bench. “It was clear to me when we took the field that we were playing like we already qualified for a World Cup,” said McCarty, who started the match on the bench. “Trinidad looked like the team that was trying to qualify. I was shocked at the level of passivity.”
In the 17th minute, disaster struck. What initially looked like a harmless Trinidad cross ricocheted off defender Omar Gonzalez’s shin and spun over a helpless Howard for an own goal. But instead of being spurred into action, the U.S. slipped deeper into its shared malaise. Twenty minutes later, T&T defender Alvin Jones fired a speculative shot from more than 35 yards out that swerved around a befuddled Howard into the top corner to make it 2–0. A sparse home crowd, filling only a portion of Ato Boldon Stadium, roared its delight.
Multiple American players described the sensation as something like sleepwalking through a nightmare. At halftime, Arena tried his best to wake the team up and to keep the rising panic he felt growing in his chest from showing through.
With the unthinkable just 45 minutes away, there remained realistic hope that they would be granted a reprieve thanks to other results. Even if the United States lost, they would be eliminated outright only if Panama and Honduras both won, too. At halftime, Costa Rica led in Panama City and Mexico was up on Honduras. When Pulisic pulled a goal back for the U.S. less than 90 seconds into the second half, there was another collective exhale.
But the worst-case scenario unfolded. Panama was mistakenly awarded a game-tying goal that never crossed the line, and Honduras edged in front of Mexico in San Pedro Sula with two quick goals. Those on the field in Trinidad had no idea — only the players on the bench were given updates of what was happening elsewhere. When midfielder Benny Feilhaber entered as a sub in the 83rd minute, the USMNT was still alive. When the final whistle blew, it took only a glance at the faces of his teammates on the sideline to confirm the worst: Panama had scored again.
Arena wrote in his book that he experienced a moment of peace as the match ended, “knowing we had given everything for this struggle.” He consoled himself with a note of encouragement sent to him by Garber — a Churchill quote — and a bottle of wine at the hotel bar with Reis, his goalkeeping coach. To this day, Arena is defensive about his decisions, accepting responsibility in word then proceeding to blame others for the result in Trinidad.
In a sense, he’s not wrong. The failure to qualify for the World Cup was a collective failure of the entire American soccer community. It was a flawed outsider, Klinsmann, and his divisive leadership that clashed with an insular organization — led by Gulati — that was unwilling to loosen its grip on power or admit to its own mistakes. It was Arena’s overreliance on veteran players and his inability to reunite a divided locker room in a short period of time. The centralized power structure, and the small size of the media corps covering it, encouraged an echo chamber where the thought of missing the World Cup was considered impossible until it happened.
And, of course, a core group of U.S. national team players failed to get a result when they needed one. The burden of failure has fallen most heavily on their shoulders. For many veterans, the 2018 World Cup would have been their last shot to play in the world’s biggest sporting event. To be the team to have fallen short for the first time in 32 years was devastating for all of them.
Asked if there was a single snapshot of that night burned into their memory, multiple players recall the sight of Pulisic, the most blameless person in the entire catastrophe, still in full uniform, weeping in the shower.
“You just feel sorry for the kid, because a talent like his deserves to be seen on the world stage this summer,” McCarty said. “It is incumbent upon everybody in U.S. Soccer to make sure no other group of players ever has to feel that way again.”
Act 5: More Hope, but No Change
After the defeat, American soccer’s power brokers fought off widespread calls for institutional reform, reasserting their power in the wake of failure.
At first, there were a few superficial fixes. Arena stepped down from his post a few days after the T&T loss, and U.S. Soccer announced that a new position of general manager would be created to oversee the hiring and firing of the national team coach.
Gulati, however, attempted to survive the blowback. In November 2017, he began plotting his reelection as U.S. Soccer president, and even started to reach out to potential new men’s national team coaches, including Michael O’Neill, the manager of Northern Ireland.
But Gulati misread the roiling anger among fans. A few members of the American Outlaws, the largest American soccer supporters club, with more than 30,000 members and 200 chapters worldwide, were even discussing a plan to protest outside U.S. Soccer headquarters in Chicago if he did declare his candidacy.
Gulati ultimately decided against running, opening the field for presidential hopefuls as wide ranging as former women’s national team goalkeeper Hope Solo to reform-minded candidates like former national team members and current broadcasters Kyle Martino and Eric Wynalda.
Yet, when the dust settled, Gulati’s former no. 2, Carlos Cordeiro, won the day, with the help of Carlos Bocanegra, the former national team captain whom Klinsmann had axed. On election day, Bocanegra, now an executive with Atlanta United of MLS, steered the decisive votes with the help of MLS commissioner Don Garber.
Despite the fanfare about the new general manager job, the position remains vacant. Several MLS executives have interviewed for the job, including current front-runner Earnie Stewart of the Philadelphia Union, Claudio Reyna of New York City FC, and Bocanegra. Press reports indicate that some candidates believe that U.S. Soccer’s leaders have not imbued the position with enough power to make real change, and others see the role more cynically, as an ideal scapegoat should a failure like Trinidad ever happen again. The job could be filled in the coming weeks, and recently U.S. Soccer announced that Bocanegra, rather than continuing his candidacy, would lead the committee responsible for making the pick.
The knock-on effects of the USMNT’s elimination continue to reverberate beyond U.S. Soccer HQ. Citing a loss of ad revenue, FourFourTwo, the British magazine, essentially shuttered its U.S. branch, putting several of the country’s top soccer journalists out of work. Soccer bars in places like Seattle will miss out on an estimated $20,000 in revenue on days the U.S. would have played. And many U.S. national team players also suffered multimillion-dollar personal financial hits on endorsement deals that hinged on qualification.
Despite the World Cup setback, Gulati, Garber, and others within the soccer bubble have played down the negative consequences of failure, insisting instead that soccer in America is still on the rise. While that remains largely true — investments in player development are churning out more high-quality players than ever, MLS continues to expand, and soccer is increasingly popular among young Americans — missing out on the tournament is a gigantic setback for U.S. Soccer’s quest to convert new fans.
Every four years, the World Cup affords the sport a chance to move from a sporting subculture into the mainstream. Players appear on nationally broadcast morning and late-night shows, on billboards in Times Square, and on global advertising campaigns. With a team that would have been led by Pulisic, the most talented player the country has ever produced, it’s easy to imagine that the 2018 World Cup would have been the most successful off-the-field event in American men’s soccer history.
Yet, even if the U.S. had managed to earn that measly draw against Trinidad, the team would still have been riven with divisions and competing against the world’s best teams while led by an aging core. Though Arena may have been able to use the prospect of playing in a World Cup to rebuild team morale and reunite the squad, leading this U.S. team through a World Cup would have been one of the biggest challenges of his coaching career.
Seven months after the Trinidad game, we now have a more complete picture of what went wrong. But where do we go from here? The answer isn’t much clearer than it was that night.
An earlier version of this piece stated that Gulati reached out to Ireland’s Martin O’Neill; he reached out to Northern Ireland’s Michael O’Neill.
Andrew Helms is a writer in New York.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Guardian, Howler Magazine, and ESPN. He is also the author of The Sound and the Glory, a forthcoming book on the Seattle Sounders to be published by ECW Press in March 2019.